Vancouver start-up’s wearable particle monitor aims to save lives

Source: Vancouver Sun

Nanozen CEO Peter Briscoe (left) and founder Winnie Chu display three generations of particle sensor prototypes.
VANCOUVER — Vancouver startup Nanozen is a creating real-time, wearable particle sensor for use in mines, mills and other industrial locations where dust and other particles can lead to dangerous explosions and debilitating respiratory diseases.
Nanozen founder Winnie Chu was working as a professor in environmental health at the University of B.C., teaching students about environmental monitoring, when she realized particle monitoring methods were falling far short of the need.
“The current technology is not sufficient to protect workers or the community when concentrations exceed the acceptable level,” she said.
That realization led Chu to launch a research project in 2004 seeking a better way to monitor nanoparticles in the air. Two years ago she gave up teaching to focus full time on the wearable particle monitor.
Chu said more than 90 per cent of the firefighters who responded to the 9/11 disaster developed lung disease, having walked into a site full of small and very damaging particles in the air.
“Those nanoparticles go deep into your lungs and cause inflammation and other problems,” Chu said.
“Thirteen years later we still don’t have a wearable real-time monitor.”
That could soon change if Nanozen’s current field tests are successful.
“It took me six years to get to this and I’m pretty happy with the product finally,” said Chu. “WorkSafeBC and some mining companies are interested and very excited about this technology and they want to test the technology.”
More recently and closer to home, the sawmill explosion and fire at Burns Lake that killed two people and injured another 20 might have been prevented had workers known of the growing concentration of wood dust in the air. Wood dust particles are much larger than nanoparticles, but Chu said the monitor can be adjusted to measure their concentration.
Chu said Nanozen has also had interest from companies in China and Taiwan.
The product has gone through several iterations as Chu has sought to create a monitor that is small and light enough to be truly wearable.
“Everything is very small, it’s about half the size of an iPhone,” she said. “Workers can put it on their helmet.”
An app to have the data shown on a cellphone is under development; so far, the real-time data is contained on the device itself.
Chu said environmental agencies require testing to distinguish between particles equal to or less than 10 microns and smaller particles 2.5 microns or less.
“When we inhale we inhale both size particles but they go into different parts of the lung,” said Chu, who said research shows the smaller the particle the higher the toxicity. The monitor she has developed can detect particles as small as one micron and even less.
“You can’t see that with your eye,” she said. “And it can suspend in the air for longer periods of time.
Chu said the technology can also be helpful for people outside of industrial settings.
“In B.C. and Metro Vancouver combined, we might have less than 20 particle monitors,” she said. “There is no way they can pinpoint a pollution source.”
For people with asthma and other respiratory problems, Chu said, data about air quality often lags too far behind.
“In a forest fire, usually they collect particle samples and 48 hours later they start to warn the public and vulnerable populations,” she said.
Chu said once field testing is completed, Nanozen hopes to launch the product in 2015.
The company recently named Peter Briscoe as chief executive officer. Chu said it is now going into its first round of financing. To date, the startup has been financed through government grants and private angel funding.